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To Tout or Not to Tout (Or, Resumes Revisited)

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Most of us are not inclined to “to blow our own horns,” experiencing significant discomfort in describing our work and life accomplishments with anything other than monosyllabic terms like “did” or “made.” Exciting words they are not. If you were to pick up a brochure on a brand new car that was typed on an IBM Selectric in Courier 12 pt. on white copy paper with an austere, word-starved list of options, you’d probably be less than impressed.

Yet that’s exactly what many people do when preparing their resumes! Fearing the monstrous sin of pride, they go to the opposite extent out of an honest desire to show humility. Please don’t misunderstand. I agree that over-inflated egos are not only insufferable but ineffective as lifestyles or marketing campaigns. And false humility isn’t any better. To quote a favorite author of mine, C. S. Lewis, “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”


So what’s the answer? How can you strike a reasonable balance between turning in a 3×5 card and writing an epic work of fiction?

Much of it starts with language. Words like “exceptional, extraordinary, demonstrated expertise, expert,” etc. may seem to be over the top, but my experience has shown that most of us UNDERREPORT our competencies, what I like to call the “Aw, Shucks Syndrome.” We can take criticism. We don’t like it, but we usually believe it. Compliments are much harder to handle, particularly when they come in our own voice!

When I presented a client of mine with the phrase “possesses an extraordinary work ethic,” he sucked through his teeth and said, “I certainly sound full of myself, don’t I?!” He was virtually incapable of saying positive things about himself. Yet the statement was true. I advised him that I would abide by his decision on the resume (since I wouldn’t be present at the interview to defend his words), but recounted from his own experience why I felt this phrase belonged in his document. Here was a man who treated all he met (subordinates, peers, bosses, outside vendors, etc.) with dignity and professionalism. His word was his bond. As a senior project engineer, he was one of the first on a site and one of the last to leave. He never requested anything from a coworker that he wasn’t willing to do himself.

After making these points to this fine gentleman, I advised him that I did not see this language as over the top but as fact demonstrated by his years of experience. If he wished, I would remove the phrase from his resume, but my vote was to keep it. He hesitated for a moment, then grudgingly agreed, “OK, we can keep it.” He didn’t like hearing it, but he knew it was true!

Following are some guidelines for deciding if a statement belongs in your resume or if you’re signing up for a Pinocchio button:

  • If the language seems a bit over the top but you can cite specific experiences where these skills were demonstrated effectively, I say keep it in!
  • If, however, your work and life experiences seem to bear out that you’re capable but not necessarily extraordinary, scale the language back to something like “solid interpersonal ability.”
  • Be aware that most of us are unable to give ourselves credit when it is due, over-exercising our humility muscles when it’s important to make sure people understand how competent we are. Unfortunately, humility in a resume or during an interview is frequently misinterpreted as lack of confidence. Sadly, they are likely to feel that this lack of confidence is well-deserved!
  • Consider asking a friend or someone who is skilled with words to help you showcase your experiences effectively. Remember that the goal of your resume is to make you worth seeing. No more. No less.

In summary, step back from your self evaluation long enough to recognize where you excel and admit it! For example, if your work and life experiences bear out that you interact with the vast majority of individuals at all levels with success and professionalism, I would argue that your interpersonal skills are “exceptional.”

Remember, if you did it, you’re not bragging!